The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently charged with regulating small UAVs in the United States. The FAA defines small UAVs as those that are 55 lbs or less. Commercial use is any operation in furtherance of a business, whether or not money is transferred, such as photography, agriculture, pipeline inspection, etc.
In February 2015, the FAA announced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for commercial small UAS operations with the intention of issuing a final rule in September 2015. The Small UAV Coalition submitted comments before the public comment period closed in April 2015.
On June 21, 2016, the FAA released its final rule governing commercial small UAS (those weighing under 55 pounds). The rule – called Part 107 – went into effect August 29, 2016. An overview of the rule and its key components can be found here.
In general, commercial small UAS operations must be conducted below 400 feet above ground level (but may operate over a structure if the UAV remains within 400 feet of the structure and does not operate over 400 feet above the structure) and at a maximum speed of 100 mph (87 knots).
Experience flying a legacy aircraft is no longer required. Certificated pilots must be at least 16 years of age. Part 61 pilot certificate holders and now non-certificated remote pilots can take an online training course.
Under the final rule, operations could be conducted only during the daytime. In 2020, the FAA authorized night operations by rule. Part 107 also required operations to be within the visual line of sight of the remote pilot. Operations over people were only permitted over those participating in the operation. Also in 2020, the FAA authorized operations over people, although with significant limitations and conditions. Wavier provisions include: operations from moving vehicle, visual line of sight, operations near aircraft, operations near people, operating limitations for altitude and ground speed, minimum visibility, minimum distance from clouds, daylight operations, and visual observer operations of multiple UAS.
Part 107’s waiver provision does not allow a waiver to carry packages for compensation beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot.
Those who seek to operate beyond the scope of Part 107 – such as operations using a drone over 55 lbs. and carriage of property BVLOS may apply for a waiver under section 44807 of Title 49, the provision in 2018 that superseded the Section 333 exemption process.
As noted above, the FAA authorized operations at night and over people in a final rule published December 2020. The Coalition filed comments in support of authorizing night operations, noting that FAA had routinely authorized night operations in section 333 exemptions and needed only to use the conditions and limitations in such exemptions as the requirements of the rule.
The Coalition expressed several concerns over the FAA’s proposal to authorize operations over people, noting that the proposed rule used a conservative risk model that is not applied to legacy aviation. The final rule retained the overly conservative risk analysis, but operations over sparsely populated areas may be conducted with fewer limitations than operations in other environments.
Also in 2020, the FAA published a final rule requiring drones to be equipped with remote identification technology that broadcasts a drone’s serial number, latitude and longitude, geometric altitude, and velocity. This so-called digital license plate is intended to assist federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to identify a drone operator that may be engaged in illegal or dangerous activity. The Coalition’s comments on the proposed rule supported the use of either broadcast or network technology. Implementation of this rule has been delayed twice given the need to develop at least one FAA-accepted Means of Compliance and also because of supply chain issues.
The next drone rulemaking will authorize BVLOS operations, following a March 2022 report and recommendations from the BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) and public comments, including comments from the Small UAV Coalition, submitted in response to a May 2023 request from the FAA for comments on the BVLOS ARC’s recommendations.
In the meantime, drone operators seeking to carry packages BVLOS must seek a Part 135 air carrier certificate and obtain a section 44807 exemption. Only a few operators have obtained that authority.
In 2015, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), located within the Department of Commerce, convened a multistakeholder process concerning privacy, transparency, and accountability issues regarding commercial and private use of unmanned aircraft systems in response to a Presidential Memorandum. On May 18, 2016, a diverse group of stakeholders came to a consensus on a voluntary best practices document. The Small UAV Coalition participated in the process to support the Administration’s goal of having industry set the appropriate guidelines on self-regulations with respect to privacy and UAS operations and welcomed the opportunity to develop these voluntary best practices through a collaborative, industry-led initiative. You can read the Coalition’s press release on the consensus document here.